At roughly 12,000-years-old, Göbekli Tepe in southeast Turkey is quite possibly the oldest temple in the world and harks back to an era when humans first started to cultivate crops and domesticate animals, the pillars of cultural evolution.
Located a dozen kilometers northeast of Sanliurfa, the site is home to a series of circular structures made up of t-shaped stone megaliths, some as tall as 5.5 meters, so-called monoliths.
Four of the stone sets have already been excavated, but geo-radars have revealed that another 16 are still underground.
Yet it is not the size of these megaliths that amazes experts but rather the intricate nature of their decorative features, whose depictions include: foxes, lions, herons, ducks, snakes and the odd human figure. All this, constructed before the metal ages.
Göbekli Tepe was declared by UNESCO as "Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity" in 2018 and since then has opened for visitors.
The discovery of the site, which the German Archaeological Institute (DAI) has been working on since 1990, broke long-held archaeological theories as it shows that the civilizations of that era, which had only just emerged from hunter-gathering, had the organizational capabilities to construct a huge monument like this.
"Until now it was thought that, at that time, humans lived in groups of about fifteen people, without any job specialization, but hundreds of well-coordinated people are necessary to build a place like Göbekli Tepe," Turkish archaeologist Devrim Sönmez, a researcher at the DAI, told Efe.
At the time Göbekli Tepe was built, humans were just starting the domestication of animals and the cultivation of plants in the region, known as Anatolia.
One theory is that the construction of such massive features, which would require years of work and the hands of hundreds of people, was partly behind the transition from nomadic to sedentary lifestyles in human beings as it required people to stay in one place for a long time.
The workers at this site thousands of years ago used ceramics to make the small figurines but apparently not to make pottery, Sönmez said.
They also knew textiles and how to make beaded necklaces and fine bone tools.
"We tend to think that humans were primitive by then, but their brain capacity was similar to ours.” “They were creative and knew how to solve problems," Sönmez added.
Researchers are unsure about where these humans lived.
There is archaeological evidence of scorched earth, suggesting they cooked and spent time at the temple, but there is nothing to suggest that humans once lived there permanently.
Göbeklitepe has been compared by experts with Stonehenge but the Anatolian monument has a six millennia advantage on the English site.
Its huge stone pillars probably held a roof forming a closed enclosure, according to Sönmez.
The archaeologist is sceptical of the recent theories assuming that high relief sculptures are related to astronomy.
"Of course, the stars were very important to humans and surely they knew them well, but there is no evidence to prove that the reliefs or the alignment of the stones are related to astronomy."
For now, only 5% of Göbekli Tepe has been excavated. EFE-EPA.